Editorial: Human Sexuality–A Panoramic View

I have been developing the following article for months. It is still a work in progress, but I offer it today in relation to the current administration’s potentially defining human sexuality using the inaccurate view of birth manifestation gender–a possibility we must resist

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Most presentations about human sexuality begin with selected passages scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments.  The assumption is that to interpret these passages properly is to understand human sexuality correctly.

This is how I began my own study of Scripture relative to human sexuality, and how I wrote about (and even debated) the matter for a long time.  It is only more recently–thanks to the insights of others–that I have come to see that by zeroing in on selected passages, we run the risk of losing the larger context in which the verses find themselves. [1]

I now believe it is necessary to begin with what I am calling “the panoramic interpretation” if we are adequately to understand the selected texts.  In the words of a hermeneutical principle, “a text without a context is a pretext.” The panoramic view is the wide-angle vision (context) we need before we zero-in on specific verses (text). 

There are two major components of the panoramic view with respect to human sexuality: a nonbinary creation and a covenant ethic. Nonbinary creation enables us to understand gender in our sexuality.  Covenant determines the ethic of our sexuality.

First, a nonbinary creation.  The first creation story links a series of pairs:  heavens/earth, light/darkness, day/night, evening/morning, and male female.  Taken at face value, we read these pairings dualistically–that is, as two aspects of a singular reality–creating a “this…and…that” interpretation.

But a second pass through the first creation story reveals something different.  None of the pairs is a twofold reality; they are all spectrum words.  Between the two-word pairings there are a variety of intermediate options.  What appears to be duality is actuality nondual, a binary interpretation gives way to a nonbinary reality, further revealed by an amazing diversity within the variants. [2]

For example: day/night.  But clearly, there is more.  There is dawn, early morning, mid-day, early afternoon, and dusk–and even more ways to describe the full-spectrum reality.  There is a cool morning, a rainy afternoon, a starry night–to name a few.  A full-spectrum reality further marked by diversity is what we discover when we ponder each of the pairings.  None of them is a “two.”

Why should it be any different in the final pair–male and female?  Within the two words (as with all the others) there is a spectrum of manifestations with respect to gender and a diversity of orientations as well.  Human is not a “two.” [3]  If we see this in the pairings leading up to the making of male/ female, we will be ready to see it here as well.

This means that when we study sexuality (with respect to gender and orientation), the panoramic view tells us we will find the same non-binary reality and accompanying diversity as we do with the rest of creation.  All subsequent texts must be studied in the context of this.

We are fortunate that science is confirming what Scripture reveals–spectrum humanity.  It does so through intricate study at the DNA level.  It is simply no longer accurate to define human beings through a binary paradigm, and even more unjustifiable to define gender by one’s physical manifestation at birth [4].  Male/female is now recognized to be a spectrum term just like every other paired category in the creation story, and gender is defined by more than physicality [5]

The second panoramic component is covenant.  From the standpoint of Scripture (in both the Old and New Testaments), covenant is the summary word for how all of life relates to God.  [6]  The morality of human sexuality is no exception.  It must be assessed through covenant too. [7]

Because covenant is a concept with many subsets, I must limit my comments to the categories which represent covenant in relation to human sexuality.  Of course, love is the overarching category, and much could be written about it by itself.  For now, I will only say that it is the presence or absence of love (hesed/agapé) which sets the trajectory for our sexuality, either in terms of morality or immorality.

Underneath the umbrella of love, we can see four additional categories: sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permenancy. These too can be expanded, but for now we can see that the panoramic interpretation of human sexuality via covenant tells us that it is not the gender/orientation, nonbinary reality (the first factor above), but rather one’s ethic which evaluates the holiness of human sexuality.

With these two panoramic interpretations (non-binary reality and covenant morality) in place, we are ready to draw some important hermeneutical contours.

First, all along the nonbinary continuum, human beings are made in the image of God.  Everyone  is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).  We are not allowed to discount any gender or orientation, not allowed to ascribe to any human being a “less than” status, and certainly not allowed to demean, discriminate against, or harm  them.  We are ALL made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), just a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5). 

Second, every human being is accountable to the covenant. There is one standard for everyone [8].  With respect to human sexuality, under the umbrella of love, we must craft sexual relations that express love and honor sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency. [9]   Sexuality is holy when it is covenantal, and unholy when it is not.

Putting the two panoramic factors together, we see that people of ALL genders/orientations can live in a covenant relationship–or not.  There is one standard for ALL people, and the holiness of human sexuality is determined by whether it is loving, sacred, monogamous, faithful, and permanent.  All humans can commit sexual sin, and all humans can express sexual righteousness. Covenant is the pivot.

Standing on the foundation of this panoramic interpretation, we are in a good place to then read and interpret the selected passages.  It is necessary to begin with this panoramic view in order to keep us from “proof texting” a theology of human sexuality in either a conservative or progressive. 

The panoramic view creates the context for properly interpreting human sexuality, and sets the trajectory which enables us to live out our sexuality in ways that are holy….and….to live in relationship with people whose gender and orientation leads them to live out their sexuality differently.  The panoramic view frees us from using any label other than ‘human’ for determining who we are and how we are meant to live together as the children of God.

[1] I am particularly grateful for the ways that Drs. Walter Brueggemann, Luke Timothy Johnson, and David Gushee have provided a larger frame of reference for the respective passages.

[2] Austin Hartke, “Nonbinary Gender and the Beauty of Creation” The Christian Century magazine, 4/16/18.  Hartke has also produced a YouTube series called, “Transgender and Christian.”

[3] The male/female pairing in the creation story is obvious–for the continuation of the human race.  But male/female is not what defines the word ‘human.’ The imago dei does that (Genesis 1:26-28).  That’s why males and females are fully human in their own right.  It is also why the Church has never made procreative capacity a requirement for marriage.  And when we recall that only about 10% of the population is LGBTQ+, there is no justification to allege that the non-procreative capacity of LGBTQ+ persons threatens the survival of the human race.

[4] Two articles provide an excellent overview: “Between the (Gender) Lines: The Science of Transgender People” by Katherine J. Wu, a blog article from Harvard University, 10/25/16….and…. “The Trump Administration Wants to Define a Person’s Sex at Birth. It’s Just Not That Simple” by Elizabeth Reis, Time magazine, 10/23/18.

[5] Two books provide a substantive introduction to nonbinary sexuality: Megan Shanon DeFranza, ‘Sex Difference in Christian Theology’ (Eerdmans, 2015)….and….Elizabeth Reis, ‘Bodies in Doubt’ (Johns Hopkins University, 2010).

[6]. Walter Brueggemann writes extensively and persuasively about this in many of his books.

[7]  I wrote about this in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ (Abingdon Press, 2014).  About three months later David Gushee’s book, ‘Changing Our Mind’ came out, and he too used the idea of covenant, exploring it in more detail than I had.  His book is now in a third edition (2017), and he continues to unpack his original ideas.  Gushee’s book, ‘Kingdom Ethics’ Second Edition (Eerdmans, 2017) explores in further detail topics related to human sexuality.

[8]  Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Church and Homosexuality” Commonweal Magazine, June 11, 2007.  The online archive is without pagination.

[9] Monogamy is in the list because the New Testament makes explicit what the Old Testament does not.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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